Feminism and Religion


New female recruit of the Afghan National Police (ANP) aims her weapon during a training session in a police base south of Herat, western Afghanistan September 16, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

I saw this photo on Reuters. What struck me most was the head scarf she is wearing. Here is a woman who, by joining the fight against the Taliban, is not rejecting her heritage. She is actively pursuing a new world, but not at the expense of her faith. The war in Afghanistan is often depicted as a war between the “backwards religious” and the “enlightened secular”, as though religious devotion cannot coexist with modern liberal democracy.

This woman, by wearing the scarf that symbolizes her faith, defies that too-convenient dichotomy. She demonstrates that the definition of a religion is determined by the voices (and actions) of its members. She is reclaiming her heritage. She is choosing what it means to be Afghan, what it means to be Muslim; rather than being defined by the expectations of her people, she is defining the expectations the world will have of her people. And that’s awesome.

24 comments for “Feminism and Religion

  1. Really, Dane? You think that, given a choice, she would wear her head scarf? You don’t think it’s a compromise with the men? A friend of mine has been working in Afghanistan and I see her pictures on facebook every now and then. Guess what. She wears a head scarf. American female reporters wear head scarves when in Afghanistan. You think this woman wears the head scarf completely of her own free will? I will grant that she is probably so used to wearing head scarves, not for religious reasons, but for cultural ones that she simply is too comfortable with them on, that taking it off would be more uncomfortable. But as far as my understanding of Afghanistan goes, she’s not wearing that of her own free will.

    However, it’s pretty cool that a woman gets to point a gun and get training to be a part of the Afghan fighting service.

  2. I am aghast! “Feminism and Religion?” Obviously something is not in context. How do we know she is not rejecting her heritage? Someone could be holding an unseen gun behind her back!

  3. Modern military weapons, especially the M-16, have made child soldiers and women soldiers possible. Interesting how something that enslaves in one context, frees or liberates or empowers in another. I do know people who were the head scarf like we wear socks, without much reflection.

    Interesting photo though.

  4. Dan, sure, I’m reading my own context into the photo, but I think that’s part of the point of reading stories into art. I find the expressions of the men almost just as interesting. They don’t look incredulous or disdainful. Maybe curious, and some look even respectful.

    Bob, since this is the ANP, I’m going to stick with “The Taliban”. If she wanted to fight against the Americans (or the Russians?) I imagine the Taliban are recruiting.

    Stephen, you’re right — it’s not easy to assign moral good or evil in conflict situations.

  5. As far as the head scarf compromise theory goes: This could certainly be either way and there’s no way to prove either with just a photo. There are many women who prefer to wear the head scarfs, and many countries where they must.

    In my opinion conflict or compatibility between religion and feminism are mostly due to the very different definitions of feminism (or religion) that people use. These definitions vary from empowering women, hating men, social reform for women, women’s suffrage, to reinstating the importance of women/mothers in society and everything in between.

    While each definition may be true in different contexts, the compatibility of religion and feminism hinges on the details rather than the names ‘religion’ or ‘feminism’.

  6. #5: Dana, At some point the Afghans will be running Afghanistan again. Either the War Lords or most likely the Taliban. The Russians spent ten years there and 100,000 of their men__and left. The ANP will fall into line when the Americans leave and are replaced with the “new” leadership.

  7. Is she shooting at airplanes? Winking at the photographer? I hope they don’t train people to aim like. But it’s cool to see Afghan women with guns. I think the world would be a better place if all women, especially in oppressed societies had a gun or two.

  8. The way I see it “feminism” and “religion” are not comparable. Here is why: Feminism is intuitive and today with its strong emphasis on equal opportunity a source for contention on the role of women in public.

    Religion is essentially a male enterprise and historically a source for war. Only in recent decades have women seen the face of war as combatants. In the past they were victims or colateral damage.

    What I see in this picture is an odd mixed between what’s real and what’s unexpected. The soldiers were dressed in BDU’s and she looks like a curious visitor to a training site. If you are familiar with military weapons training prodedures; she is pointing the weapon in the wrong direction and the drill sergeant would have made me do 50 push-ups. Apparently from the looks on the faces of the soldiers, they did not expect that.

    One question comes to mind? Was this photo taken for Afghan or American use?

  9. Well, don’t stop the conversation.

    Dane makes some interesting points in claiming that the war over there is “between the “backwards religious” and the “enlightened secular””. I have never heard it that way. What I’ve heard that there is an 80% illiteracy rate in Afghanistan and nation building. Same difference, isn’t it? Illiteracy requires symbols, but the non-illiterate do have another way to determine the validity of symbols.

    Dane also points that “she is reclaiming her heritage” by wearing a scarf and pretends to be training for war. Well, the photo shows that scarf is part of what she inherited from her religious heritage and the weapon in her hands represent the painful steps for toward a new tradition. Good points, Dane. My question is: Is war the only way to reduce illiteracy?

    The discussion that followed dwelt on symbols of faith, which I found interesting. Scarfs and other symbols of faith have a power of its own. I don’t think it is Jesus’ intent to empower these idols. It is an artifact, whose use helps us to remember important things. The power of these item resides in the mind of the believer and in them who seek to exploit others.

    In the “parable of the Sower” Jesus explained that the “tares” [idols] would grow among the wheat. The tares could not be removed without damaging a growing wheat field. It requires a special time – the harvest.

  10. I just want to say that many Muslim women do wear their headscarves willingly and that as Mormons it is a bit silly to complain about other religions modesty-maintaining ritual wear. That is all.

  11. Don’t worry, John–some of us complain about the Mormon imposition of modesty-fetishism on women, too :)

  12. For an Afghani woman, this is liberal! Keep in mind that during the Taliban’s reign of terror in Afghanistan that women were forced to not only cover their hair, but also their face, hands, and eyes.

    But we should realize that the practice of wearing the headscarf is not strictly religious, but also cultural. Just like I wouldn’t show up to church wearing a tank-top and shorts (even though there is no church mandate forbidding me from doing that), many women abide by the cultural norm of wearing a headscarf when they go out in public. In some ways it is much like the US during the 30s when the cultural norm was for women to wear skirts and for the men to wear slacks.

  13. When I was in Indonesia this summer, I was impressed with the variety of head scarves available, from the stylish (sequined? embroidered?) to the practical (scouting includes both genders there, and there is a brown uniform head scarf).

    I see great appeal in not having to fix hair every day, but just pull on a scarf.

    Heck, it could even be seen as a feminist statement, in that she is not prettying up her hair to please the men.

  14. I agree with Naismith. I’d love to abolish hair-doing all together. When I think of all the time I spent in high school doing the Farrah. Gaaaah!

    But I sure don’t see the hijab as a feminist statement. If she were doing it BECAUSE she didn’t want to muss with her hair, then sure. But the reality is that they are compelled to wear them. I have read that in Iran — where it is law — some women have protested by wearing transparent veils. IMO that would be the feminist statement. It keeps them out of jail but still leave them visible. Of course, they probably still have to fix their hair. Bummer. :)

    But, really, I’m still trying to convince some LDS women that pantyhose aren’t required to qualify for a temple recommend. ;)

  15. There is always the possibility that its really cold, and she’s wearing the scarf to warm her ears.
    Gosh people, not everything has to be about religion (or feminism). Sometimes something as simple as climate can explain things just fine.

  16. “But, really, I’m still trying to convince some LDS women that pantyhose aren’t required to qualify for a temple recommend. ;)”

    Are you my mother posting under an assumed name? She told me a story of going to the Temple in Utah on vacation. She went to the temple without panty hose, and afterwords, an elderly woman pulled her aside and told my mom that in the Temple, we wear hose. My mom just smiled and said, where I live in Florida, we don’t. So… Hi Mom?

  17. “But, really, I’m still trying to convince some LDS women that pantyhose aren’t required to qualify for a temple recommend. ;)”

    Alison, this is a cause that we can agree on.

  18. I tease my niece that the primary inducement for her conversion to Islam was the hijab. I’m not sure I’ve seen her wear the same scarf twice. She has so many and such pretty ones, lovely in both fabric and print, sometimes with jeweled pins to hold them in place. And there’s a real art to wearing a headscarf, too, with every bit as much nuance as how we wear our hair or hats or anything else. She just laughs when I tease her about that, but you should see the time she spends in front of the mirror adjusting it just so, and the look on her face as she does it. She feels beautiful wearing it — she IS beautiful wearing it — and it’s a choice, not a restriction. That’s a form of feminism, too.

  19. Thanks, Ardis, for that great example. In my mind, feminism is women taking personal ownership of their traditions and institutions. Your niece’s choice to wear a hijab (and this woman’s choice to carry a gun) are both positive expressions of feminism.

  20. Hi Dane!

    We grew up in the same area- I’m Patria Weston-Lee, my brother Ben was a friend of yours! I live in Hawaii with my husband and two kids where I work as a social worker. I found you here while researching something- I love thought provoking blogs on LDS cultural issues and when I found your name I was happy to have come across a familiar name- our family has always had such positive feelings towards your family! Congratulations on all the great things you’ve accomplished thus far in your life!! All the best, Patria

  21. Patria, great to see you here :) It makes me happy to be reminded that there are real people behind all the comments here. I hope you’re doing well in Hawaii. Send me an email if you get a chance — danelaverty at gmail dot com.

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